The Ranting Fangirl: Survival Through Subtext

Lately I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to lesbian subtext.

Now, my friend Katie is, as we speak, rushing to the bottom of this post to insist that I’m always thinking about lesbian subtext, as well as lesbian text, lesbian picture books, lesbian cartoons, and lesbian interpretive dance. Before you go read her shameful libel, let me state categorically that this is not at all true. I spend ten percent of my time thinking about sci-fi and fantasy in general. Five percent of my time goes to thinking about my holy crap adorable niece, another five percent goes to thinking about ponies (including unicorns and pegasi), and another five goes to thinking about my cats. Three percent of my time goes to thinking about how it would be so much easier to find clothes and shoes that fit properly if my feet were three or four sizes smaller and I was six inches shorter and a few pounds lighter. And, last but far from least, two percent of my time goes to thinking about corgis and Shelties, and what I’m going to name any corgis and/or Shelties I’m able to adopt someday (Tinkerbell or Stellabella for girls; Puck, Robin or Casey for boys). So, at most, I spend 70% of my time thinking about lesbian subtext. Math.

But I’ve spent the last day or so thinking about lesbian subtext in somewhat more abstract terms, inspired by a couple articles I’ve read recently. The first, an Entertainment Weekly piece tweeted by Roger Ebert (and then retweeted by a Twitter buddy of mine), asks if Merida – the newest Disney princess, and star of the new Pixar film, Bravemight be gay. Their reasoning isn’t great; Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress takes it on here. But a lot of the people who responded to both Ebert’s tweet and the original article objected to the very idea – not only from the generally anti-gay perspectives you might expect, but from feminist perspectives as well. I can’t say I entirely disagree with the fundamental point that heterosexual women can reject traditional gender roles, too; nor do I disagree with the related point that we are not defined solely by who we’re attracted to, and saying “Well, Merida just isn’t into men at all, is she?” kind of undermines her determination to choose her own fate, no matter what that fate may be or who else it might involve. (Please note that I haven’t seen the film yet. I plan to. Soon. But I’m working from only the sketchiest details.)

And yet…

Subtext is important. At times, subtext is vital. Especially when decent text is so hard to find. It’s getting better, to be sure, but there’s still a dearth of compelling, well-rounded gay characters, particularly in children’s entertainment. Sure, Dumbledore was gay…but that was never truly relevant to the saga of Harry Potter, and it didn’t even come out until the last book was printed. And too often, even those meager scraps can be ripped away.

This brings me to the second article. Now, I should preface this by saying that I don’t watch Adventure Time. But I do follow another WordPress blog called Misprinted Pages, and today Stephanie posted a review of the Adventure Time comic book, touching on a “controversy” connected with the show in the process. Said controversy is recapped here, but in brief: about a year ago, there was an episode showcasing some “light lesbian subtext” between two female characters, Marceline and Princess Bubblegum, and the show’s creators posted an online video commenting on the episode, essentially upgrading the subtext to some kind of text, and soliciting fan art and fan responses. That video was later pulled – after an outpouring of support from the online lesbian community in particular –  for reasons that still don’t make a lot of sense. The episode is still in circulation, but heaven forbid the creators openly acknowledge  that two characters in a family cartoon might be gay for each other. (Since the same episode apparently also implies or outright states that another character has been jerking off to a lock of Princess Bubblegum’s hair, I’m not sure how gay characters would cross any lines that haven’t already been left in the dust anyway.)

I know, I know – I’m spending a lot of time talking about stuff I haven’t seen. Insert pithy comment about feeling like I’m hardly ever seen here. I’m pretty sure everyone in the GLBT community is used to this game: go through the hundred or shows on television on any given moment, cringing at the stereotypes and crass humor, bracing yourself for heartbreak whenever a decent gay, bi or trans character happens to emerge, and grasping at subtext wherever you can find it. Hoping against hope that Disney will just admit that the Mystic Force Pink Ranger is gay (short-haired tomboy whose one and only date on the show was with a girl and who openly and enthusiastically agreed with the guys that another female character was hot…come on, people), or that TNT will stop teasing us with Rizzoli & Isles, or that you weren’t just imagining that chemistry between Veronica Mars and Meg Manning. Writing fan fic about Kirk and Spock or Xena and Gabrielle (even if the latter are all but canonical).

I’m not going to say it’s okay, because it’s not. I can count on one hand the number of current TV shows with meaningful gay characters that I actually enjoy. And when it comes to stuff I’d want my future kids to watch? Stuff that would show them that, no matter who they are, there are people like them out there, and they’re beautiful and amazing just the way they are? It falls to just about zero.

I get that it’s annoying at times. I get that sometimes the reasoning isn’t great – sometimes the reasoning is actually insulting. And I guess I’m not really saying that flawed reasoning shouldn’t be challenged. But, at the same time, sometimes subtext is all we have. Sometimes subtext helps us cope. Sometimes it helps us survive. And it’s not enough. Especially not for the gay and bi and trans kids growing up now, struggling to come to terms with who they are, still developing those vital survival skills. But don’t begrudge us our icons. Don’t go telling us our subtext is wrong. Because God knows we need all the heroes we can get – textual or otherwise.

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6 thoughts on “The Ranting Fangirl: Survival Through Subtext

  1. 70% is close enough 😛

    More to the point, of course, my assertion is largely in teasing capacity, which I’m pretty sure you know. Subtext is absolutely important, whatever sort of subtext it may be–it adds flavor and nuance to something, and those are the things that make a work go beyond good and get better. It’s stuff that pays off when later on a twist happens and you realize, this isn’t sudden, X, Y, and Z happened earlier and totally pointed to this! Subtext is essential; it echoes real-life, where there are things you miss or miss until far after the fact, or things that aren’t as “safe” or “mainstream.” Media and entertainment should reflect all aspects of our culture, from the accepted to the controversial, the everyday to the strange, the past, present and future. We really should ALL be able to see ourselves in the things that reflect our culture.

    And yes, it IS stupid that OMG lesbian subtext will still make people censor things, but, well, some people are stupid.

    But Veronica & Meg? I’m surprised you didn’t say Veronica & Lilly! (Regardless, her chemistry with Logan still blows everyone else out of the water, of course.)

    (Oh, you really must read Hex Hall. A supporting character is a kick-ass teenage vampire, who’s also a lesbian, and loves hot pink to an absurd degree. She’s great!)

    • Well, Lilly’s bisexuality – or Veronica’s assumption of the same – is pretty much text. Which, actually, does make one wonder why Veronica was so quick to assume Lilly was interested in women and/or eventually would have started experimenting…hmmmmm.

  2. Hey, great post, and thanks for the mention! I love all the pop culture references here. 🙂

    I can’t BELIEVE the whole thing with Brave. It’s a little ridiculous. So now we can have willful female protagonists, but unless we make them gush over a boy, they’re gay. What? How is that progress?

    When J. K. Rowling admitted that Dumbledore was gay, though … I was kind of annoying, to be honest. Not because he’s gay. But because we finished a whole series and then she whipped it out to spite naysayers — like, “Hey, you LOVED this character, and he was GAY! HA!” She used it more like a weapon against anti-gays than as a true and genuine part of Dumbledore’s character … not to mention she kept it from readers, which is a little dishonest if you ask me. If it doesn’t exist in the book, it’s not really fact. I had a hard time buying it. But that’s just me.

    • Having actually seen Brave, now, I don’t feel Merida is gay at all. She did seem rather impressed by at least a couple of the guys presented (or seemingly presented) as her suitors. The problem wasn’t that she wasn’t interested in boys; the problem was that she wanted to choose her own destiny, and the traditions of her people wouldn’t allow her to do so. So yes, I do think EW was jumping the gun a bit. On the other hand, I think GLBT youth can certainly empathize with Merida’s story to some degree, and the core message of the film speaks to us all.

      As for Dumbledore, I would largely have to agree. Even if she did intend it from the beginning – or figured it out during the writing process – the revelation to the public was badly botched. It came off as an afterthought, and yes, a rather clumsy refutation to a group of admittedly unpleasant people who had already, in large part, dismissed the Harry Potter books as Satanic in any event. It is nice to see such a prominent children’s character presented as gay. It would have been nicer still to see him portrayed as such in the main text. (I do think, in large part, that the author defines canon, even if they say things that aren’t directly confirmed in the main text…but on the other hand, you have people like Orson Scott Card, whose interpretation of his own works apparently has nothing in common with the interpretations made by most of his readers. I think it’s fair to say that his interpretation of reality is in the minority view as well.)

  3. The popular perception of sexual tendencies frustrates me endlessly. I’m hard-pressed to think of any mainstream TV show, film or book that has gay characters whose sexual preferences AREN’T relevant to the plot. The moment a character “comes out”, the plot veers off and becomes about their sexuality, and not about the actual story itself. I feel like Will and Grace could have managed this, if they hadn’t filled 29 minutes of each half hour with stereotyped gay jokes.

    It boils down to the question, I suppose, of WHY you’re broaching your character’s sexuality at all. How, and why, is it important? It feels too often that, when dealing with gay characters, the answer is merely for novelty.

    • To an extent, I think, the mainstream media have yet to escape the idea of sexuality as novelty. On the other hand, sexual orientation and gender identity are HUGE parts of our lives as GLBT people. Being in the statistical minority, in societies that at best still aren’t entirely sure what to do with us and at worst want to destroy us, we can’t HELP but spend a lot of time agonizing this stuff, such that it comes to define who we are. Even if we choose to assimilate, to play down our sexuality and identity as much as we can, that still tends to be a conscious choice.

      There should be gay characters – and lesbian characters, and bi characters, and trans characters, and all kinds of minority characters – simply because we exist, and we deserve to be represented. Hollywood has not yet figured out how to represent us without relying on stereotypes. I hold out hope that this will change over time; that, perhaps, it’s already changing, with upcoming shows like Partners and The New Normal. But the solution isn’t to stop talking about it altogether – the solution is to offer plenty of feedback, call them on the stuff they get wrong, and try, in our own ways, according to our own particular skills, to make things better.

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